Just blink, driving north on Connecticut Avenue, and you'll miss the town of Kensington. Blink again and you'll have passed the hidden treasures on Howard Avenue - Main Street to this unofficial antique capital of the suburbs.
"Howard Avenue is like Peyton Place without the sex," says art gallery owner Andy Dreisen Smull. "It's a small town, and the shop-owners all know each other."
But don't let yourself be carried away with images of a bucolic, quaint town, steeped in tradition.
"There's no such thing as the good old days here," says lifetime Kensington resident Bonnie MacIntyre. "'Hideous' Howard Avenue used to be nothing but railroad tracks and plumbing, electrical and television repair shops."
Five years ago, Kensington had only two antique shops. Today there are close to 60.
A recent self-guided tour of Howard Avenue East started one block off Connecticut Avenue. Once past the new Safeway, the time trip begins with a detour into 3808 Howard Avenue - a small building housing two antiquarian book shops. Classic Tales carries a slew of antique and contemporary children's books, including a paperback version of the etiquette book "The Goops and How To Be Them" by Gelett Burgess. My exacting grandmother foisted this turn-of-the-century treasure on me when I was five.
Down the hall at The Old Printed Word, the array of old documents and rare books - many beautifully bound and embossed - is enough of permanently detain you from the rest of the tour. Owner "Doc" Des Roches, always ready to offer a cup of coffee reveals endless anecdotes and tales behind each acquisition. Such as 1894 editions of The Horse, a 50-cent magazine out of Chicago claiming a "larger ciruclation than any turf journal published," or the 1799 documents of the original landowner of Washington, widely rumored to have died in a Philadelphia debtors' prison.
On the corner of Howard and Armory Avenues in Whippo's Clock Shop, with a collection of new grandfather models and marvelous old relics awaiting repair. The effect of several hundred clocks going tick-tock and chiming at different intervals is hypnotic. Some of the customers look as escentric as the old timepieces they bring in for repair.A real beauty is the electric number made from old Decca 78 rpm record.
Across Armory Avenue, a few steps south of Lee Offutt's Exxon station (there as long as anyone can remember), is a small-shop complex, housing Atherton's Used Books, Nature's Exotics (featuring petrified mammal dung as well as gems and other lapidaries), Kensington Workshop (an artists' studio) and A.D. Smull Gallery.
The next two blocks of Howard Avenue, from Armory to Montgomery, boggle the mind. Mere than 40 antique shops roost there, many housed in a four-building mall complex called Antique Village, others in houses built around the turn of the century, when Kensington was a summer haven for Washingtonians.
The plenum of little-known facts picked up by walking through the shops is endless. There are antiques and then there are primitives. The latter are items made by locals, rarely mass-produced. Such as New England blueberry or cranberry rigs found at Country Look - large wooden scoopcombs that take the pain out of berrypicking. Not all primitives are functional: Owner Julia Willet points to a 19th-century, springbox-operated, bagatelle "pin-ball" machine with nails and marble. The old ones never "tilt."
Categorized somewhere between primitives and "traditional antiques" is an American painted "tin kitchen" (circa 1900) at Joya Antiques. A precursor of today's cabinets and trendy spice racks, it holds a coffee-grinder and containers for flour, coffee and condiments.
Sit at an English writing desk from a Newport estate; savor the fruitwood and ivory inlay, then open the mahogany-lined drawers and imagine what was written on the hand-tooled leather blotter.
I fantasized myself at a Victorian summer tea party while attempting to try on a pair of exquisite beige elbow-length leather gloves at This and That (Howard Avenue West). Gasp! My fingers are suffocating as I slowing worked the "second skins" over my hands.
"Don't give up," said the owner. "My mother went through the same thing everytime she washed her gloves."
Ladies's shoes in that era were stiff, with many buttons - some reaching just over the ankle, others farther up the calf. Apparently, no one knows if they were comfortable: few women today have feet small and narrow enough to fit them. Just to fasten them required a button hook. Typical of that period, the button hooks are extremely ornate - boasting ivory scrimshaw or silver filigree handles, judging from Phyllis Van Auken Antiques' selection.
Antiques Anonymous, which buys from the Florida Anheuser Busch estate, has some charming clothes to complete this fantasy package. What better way to serve cold liquids in the days before refrigeration than with a mid-19th-century sterling water cooler with porcelain liner from Jantiques?
The law of supply and demand - 19th-century style - becomes most obvious with a Sunflower Vacuum Oil Company lamp now at Van Auken's. The Rockefeller agents took a number of these to China in the 1860s as an inducement to importing kerosene to keep the things lit. A fitting testimony to the ingenuity of capitalism.
Another kind of ingenuity - Thomas Jefferson's creativity - is at Van Auken's: a mid-19th-century reproduction of his octagonal revolving chest with 98 pie-shaped drawers for horse-and-buggy hardware.
Antique browsing certainly works up an appetite. But Kensington is a drytown, and an ordinance forbidding restaurants in wooden buildings rules out any truly charming inns or cafes. The merchants all say they want to change that. Meantime, try the Country Cupboard Tea Room in Antique Village. Standard fare abounds - subs, sandwiches and salads. There are also tasty Greek foods: Spanakopita (spinach pie) and Kreatopita (meat pie) make a nice snack, and I can never resist baklava. Home-made soups are offered daily along with a Greek salad "made the old way."
The true relic and most priceless antique on Howard Avenue is the Kensington Department Store, a dusty Victorian general store that embodies all my fantasies of the ultimate in hardware, five-and-dime and drug stores. The shelves overflow with dry goods, sewing notions and kitchen ware. You can hardly see the cash register for the displays surrounding it like an overgrown ivy trellis. Alas, before the summer is out, the Kensington Department Store will apparently be no more. Mr. Victor, the owner, will retire next door, in a building with Newie Oldies and Kensington Galleries, to practice his passion: repair Timex watches. The business is available, but Victor has had no takers - "no one seems to want to work tha that hard any more," he sighs.
Across Connecticut Avenue, past the row of repair shops and warehouse supplies, the antique shops start to thin out.
For anyone who relishes the job of refinishing pieces, Antique Wholesales is a must. This is a warehouse full of mostly Victorian and 18th-century relics imported from England. Check out the carriage that Matthew Emery owned in 1871. The last elected mayor in D.C. until Walter Washington, Emery is better known as the stonemason who placed the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. He lasted as mayor only six months: Congress, displeased with the city government, abolished his office.